Archive for May, 2009

Road to Manali

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

The Amritsar-Manali bus was 16 hours long and left at 2pm – they actually swapped driver once along the way which was nice to see (the 12 hour Dharamsala bus had only a single driver..). The first stretch of road from crazy hot Amritsar was actually dual-lane, though that’s no guarantee here for avoiding oncoming traffic. At one point, with two lanes each direction separated by a grass barrier, there were two buses coming our way against traffic – blocking both lanes with one overtaking the other… Our driver, who looked like an Indian Che Guevara dressed in green and everything, used the horn so much during the first 10 hours that I don’t expect my full hearing back for 2-3 days. This was one of the regular state-run buses that we just narrowly avoided on the last trip.

House in upper Manali village.

House in upper Manali village.

The road got progresively worse as it started to climb up into the mountain towards Manali in the night, though I did manage to scrape out some sleep (I can sleep in even the most appaling conditions..something I still need to thank the Swedish army for). Once I woke up I realized I had been much better off sleeping – it was the kind of road that makes you quickly forget the “don’t hold hands in public”-rule, and not in a good way. It was dark, but we could see the lights from the villages hundreds of meters below us in the valley, the road a narrow strip between the vertical wall to the left and the sheer drop to the right. At least the road was unpaved and in pretty bad condition! (..meaning the driver had to go at least slightly slower than he otherwise would). Unfortunately he seemed to know the road well though, at least judging by the speed that was still about 20 times faster than I would have driven. At one point he actually left the bus and went running to chase away a Himalayan rabbit that had been stuck in the headlight for about half a kilometer (there was simply no left or right for it to run to). Great that he was getting some fresh air I thought…and also liked the fact that he showed some indication for wanting to preserve precious life, seeing that ours like that of the rabbit was firmly in his hands.. For the last couple hours there was hardly anyone else left on the bus at all, and at one point the driver stopped to snooze for half an hour.

We arrived to Manali in the rain and the dark (when it had started to rain the driver and the ticket-guy had spent several seconds trying to get the wipers working before giving up and continuing half-blind..) – it was 5am and the driver had shaved a good hour of the trip, even when counting his sleep-break.

As we didn’t fancy moving again for a while we decided to spend some time in Manali..

Forest park in Manali.

Forest park in Manali.


Manali at 2000 meters altitude is a charming little town, in an area the guidebook describes as based on apple and cannabis cultivation. Most of the tourists seem to be here to support the latter – in every restaurant people are sitting around smoking charas, chillumns and hookahs. It’s also a honey-moon spot for Indian tourists, as well as a center for trekking and rafting and other adventure sports. I however found a completely different activity altogether to keep me occupied for a few days…

Amoebic dysentery. I should probably have adopted the diet of most other foreign visitors here – “only that which can be inhaled”. I was in bed for a couple days but Edel got me some medicine in town that sorted me out fairly quickly. Think I was lucky to escape a full three weeks actually, since poor Edel had caught the bacterial version already once in the first week back in Dharamsala. Once I felt better we booked a jeep safari to the Spiti valley for 9 days, and then tickets to fly to Andaman after – now have plans for almost a month ahead!

Before leaving Manali we did some walks to the more traditional upper Manali village, and in a little forest reserve by lower Manali town. There we chanced upon a small animal sanctuary with some Himalayan pheasants and other birds. The owner came over to talk to us and walked us over to a small enclosure with an adorable Himalayan black bear that was busy trying to put it’s head inside an old torn-up basket ball. The bear was named Baloo and he had arrived very young after its mother had died – the owner told us that when it arrived first and was smaller it had used to follow him around freely in the park all the time..he seemed like such a sweet person – could really see him just stroll around in the park all day long with his Baloo bear. Baloo was bigger now so had to be in a cage, though the enclosure was designed for pheasants so he still escaped every now and then and went climbing the trees in the park.

Golden temple of Amritsar

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

We walked in to a travel agent in Dharamsala to ask for transport to Amritsar just as he had finished explaining to a nice Irish lady that there was only a 1% chance that he would be able to find someone to share her 2am Amritsar-taxi with. It seemed like a good match so we joined in to get moving again – it would have been too easy to just spend week after week in Dharamsala as it’s a really nice spot. The 5 hour drive was uneventful, apart from the killing or at least severe maiming of a black stray dog (the driver quickly stopped and rushed out to check…yes, the car was alright!).

The Golden Temple in Amritsar

Guard at the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Amritsar, or indeed the whole Punjab state, has really just one major tourist attraction; the Golden Temple – the holiest site in the Sikh faith. Sikhism is young as religions go, started by a Guru Nanak about 500 years ago – it’s a bit of a Hinduism-Islam mix that is nice enough to drop the horrible caste system. The temple is open to everyone of all casts and all creeds – they even serve everyone who wants food there for free, some 10,000 portions a day! The majority of Punjab is Sikh, and most men sport a beard+turban combination..some also carry a dagger or large sabre on the side. The golden temple is actually covered with real gold – some 100kg of leaf gold. Inside the temple there is a continuous readings of the sacred Sikh texts along with shabad kirtan music, all of which is also relayed on loud-speakers all over town. We could hear it constantly from our hotel room..and just in case we couldn’t there’s also a live TV channel for backup!

Circling around the temple we made lots of friends, people who wanted to tell us about the Sihk faith and the temple, people who wanted to interview us on how much we knew about the Sihk faith and the temple (perhaps for a school project), and endless amounts of people who wanted to take a photo with us / of us / wanted us to take a photo of them with our camera. We were asked some interesting questions..did we have a love-marriage or an arranged marriage? One person asked if I was Edel’s brother or her boss..? I’m her boss of course! From Amritsar we wanted to continue on to Manali – I wanted to start by train but Edel wanted to take the bus the whole way so we went with the bus..

We stayed just one night in Amritsar – I went back to the temple again at sunrise for some more photos and on the way back I was questioned by the police for taking pictures of a cow on the street!

More photos.

Meditation Retreat

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
View from Tushita

View from Tushita

In McLeod Ganj we signed up for a 10-day silent meditation retreat at Tushita on a hill above town. The accommodation was pretty basic, dorm rooms and bucket showers, but the location stunning; overlooking a mixed forest of conifers and broadleaves on the hill-slope below, with rhododendron just starting to bloom under the trees. The first couple days the forest was covered in mist, later it cleared to show snowcapped mountains in the distance. Some days we could spot silver-coloured langur monkeys or flying squirrels in the treetops, and every day around lunch we could spot hordes of macaques trying to steal our food – they’d get away with at least one or two people’s sandwich or piece of fruit at every meal. The days started at 6am with mixed meditation sessions and Buddhism teachings the full day until about 9pm. Other rules included not killing any animals, including mosquito’s. However, throwing stones after the macaque monkeys so they wouldn’t steal food was Ok! – ..try to imagine ordained nuns in robes hurling rocks after the monkeys! (..will need to imagine as camera had to be handed in to the safe at checkin together with other distractions like mp3 player and non-dharma books.) The silent-rule wasn’t actually fully absolute either as there were discussion groups in the afternoon and questions during class etc. The teachers were good and did their best to fit the teachings to the pretty diverse group of students; some people would be in to every pyramid-energy crystal-healing tantric-kundalini-yoga new-age invention there is, and at the other end of the spectrum they’d have to put up with people like me who think that Richard Dawkins just might be a little too religious. The teachers explained at the beginning they weren’t out to “convert” anyone, that the course was like a smörgåsbord and everyone could just pick the pieces that make sense for them. I found the meditation very interesting anyhow, it’s something I’d never tried before, and quite a lot of the Buddhism teachings do seem to make sense to me without having to resort to faith..I’ll just have to leave the old Hinduism legacies with reincarnation and karma at the side. There must be something to it really – the old Buddhist monks in the pictures hanging on the walls here always feature a beaming smile on their face…they’ve seen their millenia-old culture destroyed bit by bit and still manage to feel compassion for the people causing this? I remember a National Geographic article where a number of Tibetan monks where fitted with electrodes and run through an MRI scanner..think it concluded they were actually the happiest people in the world..

My guru

My Guru.

We had one great meditation session with Mark, a friendly vegemite-obsessed Aussie with shaved head who led most of our meditation sessions; the ever-present macaque monkeys were fighting as we were trying to sit quietly and observe our mind..Mark speaking in his serene meditation voice guiding a mental-state check “…maybe you’re feeling tired…”, the monkeys start running and fighting on the roof, “…maybe you’re feeling distracted…”, more and heavier monkeys join in – it sounds like thunder above, “…maybe you’re wondering why they built a meditation hall with a tin roof?…” – everyone laughing loud!

Edel unfortunately got sick within 24 hours of observing silence. Sorry, that didn’t come out right at all! Edel unfortunately got food poisoning on the 2nd day, and missed a lot of the meditation sessions. We would probably have left both of us, but they convinced us to stay on and Edel took a trip down to the doctor together with an Israeli girl who needed some rabies shots after getting bitten by one of the monkeys..

Once the course was finished and Edel felt better we did a couple short walks around Dharamsala before deciding to head off to the city of Amritsar which we had missed on the way up from Delhi.